Looking from the Outside In

I remember the first time I worked with an executive coach when I was a Director at Deloitte. It was truly eye-opening. People who know me well know that I'm a self-help book junkie and my own worst critic. However, when you're in the thick of the day-to- day pressures and demands there are some things that you just can't "see" on your own. It usually has nothing to do with your intelligence, but has more to do with whether you can find ways to "look at the situation from the outside in." Let me give you an example of a recent client, Suzy, a leader frustrated about an employee's subpar performance. She was convinced he had potential and was trying to figure out how to help him improve. I asked Suzy to explain in detail how she was working with this particular person. As we got deeper into the conversation, she shared that she was giving him recommendations, checking in with him daily, and personally investing a lot of her time. Nonetheless, she saw no notable change in his performance.

I asked whether she thought he had the intellectual horsepower and capacity to do the job, and Suzy immediately said, "Yes." Hearing this, I realized that Suzy may have some blind spots about the situation. So, I asked her a series of questions to help her "look at the situation from the outside in." These questions might come in handy the next time you find yourself in a perplexing situation:

1. What is your underlying intent in this situation?

"I want to keep this employee in the company. His technical skills and knowledge are valuable and hard to replace, and he has potential. I want to help him in any way that I can."

2. What is at stake?

"I'm relatively new in my role. If this fails, I will be viewed as a failure. It will take forever to find a good replacement. I have to make this work."

3. What messages are you sending through your words and actions, regardless of your intent?

Words - "I am willing to invest my time to help you improve. I am concerned about your performance but think you have potential. I want to keep you in this company."

Actions - "Daily meetings with him and sometimes his team, offering numerous recommendations, dedicating hours of my time to him each week despite other priorities."

Messages Conveyed by these Actions - "I don't trust you, so I need to look over your shoulder every day. I don't think you can do the job, so I'm going to do it for you. My way is the best way, so this is how you should do it."

4. If roles were reversed, how would you feel in this situation?

"Incompetent, embarrassed, like I'm about to be fired and should be looking for another job."

By answering these questions, Suzy realized the pressure she felt and how she was sabotaging her own efforts to improve her employee's performance. So, we took her insight and came up with a different approach - one that engaged her employee in the solution without micromanaging him. I'm pleased to say that she is finally seeing that potential turn into performance.

So, keep these four questions handy and find someone to help you objectively look at your situation "from the outside in."